Shirley Temple: A Lesson for Miley Cyrus

It might be hard for anyone under the age of 50 to understand the immense celebrity of Shirley Temple. She was an incredibly gifted child whose innate talents brought great joy to audiences during the Great Depression, a time when soup lines were longer than theater lines. Despite nearly empty pockets, audiences paid to spend a couple hours basking in her sunny, optimistic disposition that brightened a gloomy era. She had no equal, and no child star since has matched her tectonic appeal and impact.

Shirley Temple was the first child blockbuster franchise, long before the idea of a "franchise" was born. Her talents were soon recognized by a studio that carefully controlled, packaged and sold her image to massive audiences that adored her. She starred in a couple dozen films while still a child, had an immensely popular doll in her image, sang a slew of popular songs, and had her name splashed on various products including a nonalcoholic drink, the Shirley Temple.

And she did it without twerking.

Although much can be said of Shirley's stardom, much can also be said of the graceful way she transitioned from that stardom. When audiences became less interested in Shirley the teenager, she found other paths where she could shine. She eventually devoted her energies to raising a family, to being the President of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, and to a life as a United States Ambassador.

That is not the transition that many child celebs take today. Some try so hard to stay in the spotlight, that they think shock equals talent. Some try so hard to convince audiences that they are no longer a child, that they believe sex equals maturity. Some try so hard to be cool, that they think drugs equal popularity.

These don't. Wide audience popularity is often measured by audience surveys, but the most interesting measure is the number and value of corporate endorsements a pop star has. Massive endorsements are only handed to stars that audiences love. By that measure, a quick Google search tells us that Taylor Swift beats Miley Cyrus hands down.

Striving for continuous applause is a powerful, insatiable drug. To quote the lyrics of Lady Gaga's latest hit, Applause...

I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong.
To crash the critic saying, "Is it right or is it wrong?"
If only fame had an I.V., baby could I bear.
Being away from you, I found the vein, put it in here.

I live for the applause, applause, applause.
I live for the applause-plause.
Live for the applause-plause.
Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me.
The applause, applause, applause.

In my entertainment consulting career I have conducted roughly a thousand audience research studies for corporate giants, looking for blockbuster franchises of all types from television shows to films to toys to packaged goods to pop stars. I am bewildered by the children that tested so well for their innocence versus their older, far less innocent pop star selves of today. It's not about reaching maturity -- it's about the type of maturity you reach.

In a way, Shirley was lucky. The rise of the teenage pop star era had yet to come when she was a teen. In those earlier days, there was no path for a teenager when Hollywood stopped calling other than to direct one's talents elsewhere, and importantly, to discover hidden talents that could be used for other great endeavors. And so Shirley traded the soundstage for a world stage, and found stardom yet again in an unexpected and more fulfilling way.

God knows what might have become of Shirley Temple if the pop star path had been available. I shudder to think of her twerking in a mad attempt to stay in the public eye. But I seriously doubt she would have dropped her pants while picking up a microphone, or get high to offset a low self-esteem.

Some of today's young celebs can take a great lesson from Shirley. In the end, it's not about retaining long term celebrity; it's about retaining long term appeal. It's not about shock value; it's about timeless values. It's not about holding on to talent, it's about finding new talents. It's not about maximizing the applause you get from others; it's about maximizing the help you give to others.

You did it right, Shirley. You did it right.